Mike Gronstal: Iowa’s Perennial Power Player

Republicans have the governorship and the state House in Iowa, but Democrats have Mike Gronstal, who adheres to the old-fashioned sense that voters elect politicians to work on policy before retreating to their respective partisan corners.
by | January 2016
Gronstal has served as leader of the Iowa Senate Democrats for nearly 20 years, about half that time in the majority. (Photos by David Kidd)

As Republican presidential candidates make their way around Iowa ahead of next month’s key caucuses, one of the ways they’ve sought to distinguish themselves is by showing disdain for Planned Parenthood. After a brief period of respectful silence following the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in November, several GOP candidates vowed to defund the women’s health and abortion provider, to strip it of its nonprofit status or, in the case of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, to prosecute it. They are echoing Republicans in much of the country. Planned Parenthood has already been defunded in a half-dozen states. 

But there’s one place where the group’s funding remains secure: Iowa itself.

GOP Gov. Terry Branstad might like to challenge Planned Parenthood, but he lacks the authority to cancel the group’s Medicaid contracts unilaterally. And that won’t change in 2016, because of the narrow Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate, and most of all because of Mike Gronstal, the Senate majority leader. Gronstal has already warned Republicans they’re setting themselves up for a “very long” session if they go after Planned Parenthood. “He’s definitely been an impediment -- it’s an understatement -- on the life issue,” says Jenifer Bowen, executive director of Iowa Right to Life. “It’s incredibly frustrating to have the House and the governorship and be rendered helpless because of one person.”

It’s not just abortion. Over his long career as Senate leader, Gronstal has stopped the Republicans countless times when they wanted to win on a hot-button issue. In 2009, after the state Supreme Court made Iowa the third state to allow same-sex couples to get married, Gronstal blocked all GOP efforts to overturn the decision and ban the practice. When it comes to curtailing collective bargaining rights for public employees, Iowa Republicans know it’s hardly worth taking the time to draft a bill, due to Gronstal’s certain opposition. “He’s become like another de facto governor of Iowa, where he’s got complete control of the agenda,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

That may be an overstatement, but no one doubts Gronstal’s ability to leverage power. He manages to keep his two-seat majority in the Senate together on nearly all major issues, giving Democrats a unified voice in a state otherwise dominated by Republicans.

Gronstal has served as leader of the Senate Democrats for nearly 20 years, about half that time in the majority. It’s fair to say that he rules the Senate with an iron fist. His complete control of the calendar, more than anything else, is what allows him to throttle Republican proposals when he chooses to do so. “Without Mike, we are Wisconsin,” says Andy McGuire, the state Democratic chair, alluding to the raft of conservative initiatives enacted in that neighboring state by a GOP legislature and governor.

"I've never threatened anybody," Gronstal says. "If you can't really persuade them, maybe you ought to rethink what you're doing."

But while Gronstal can be intransigent on certain social and labor issues, he’s a dealmaker by nature. He respects the fact that Iowans have a longstanding habit of voting for divided governments, and much of the time he’s willing to give Republicans what they need to claim at least partial victory. “While we clearly have profound differences on some of the substantive issues,” says Kraig Paulsen, who stepped down as GOP House speaker last year, “we both conducted our business in a straightforward fashion and found a way to get things done.”

For all his success keeping his majority together as a strategist, recruiter and fundraiser, the 65-year-old Gronstal adheres to the old-fashioned sense that voters don’t elect politicians to continue electioneering once in office. For the most part, he and the Republicans have stuck to the tradition of trying to work on policy first, before retreating to their respective partisan corners when compromise can’t be reached. In large part that’s been a necessity, since political control has been divided between the parties in all but four years out of the last 30. But it’s also a reflection of the way Gronstal likes to do business. “I’ve got to give him credit for being somebody who’s fair and reasonable to negotiate with,” the governor says. “He can be a strong partisan, but he can be pragmatic and recognize the need to work things out.”

Republicans took the state House and governorship back in 2010, as they were piling up victories in most of the country. They fell short in the Iowa Senate, however, with Democrats holding on to a 26-to-24 majority. That same balance has held for five years now. In Iowa, senators serve staggered four-year terms, meaning half the Senate seats are up every two years. Republicans have challenged Gronstal’s majority and challenged him personally in his Council Bluffs district, but they’ve fallen short every time. The majority leader is known for driving all over the state for fundraisers, and he’ll proudly show you the calluses on his knuckles from knocking on thousands of doors. “The guy’s a slick, talented political operative,” says Scheffler, the conservative activist.

Gronstal comes from a banking family, but he betrays nothing of a patrician air. Quite the opposite. His combination of pale skin, glasses and a toothy grin lend him a slight resemblance to the horror novelist Stephen King. He’s locally famous for being a cheapskate when it comes to crummy cars and unkempt clothes. Gronstal trained as a social worker, and cut off his hippie hair just in time to run for the state House back in 1982. After a single term, he made his move over to the Senate.

As a young legislator, Gronstal distinguished himself as a policy nerd, someone ready to nose all around the tall stacks of the library at the capitol, learning history, codes and procedure. That detail work has since paid for itself many times over. “There is no one under the golden dome that knows process and the rules of the Senate better than Mike Gronstal,” says Brad Zaun, a Republican state senator. “I am in awe at how he keeps his caucus together, because he cannot lose one vote.”

Colleagues like to talk about Gronstal’s memory, his ability to recall long-ago budget packages down to the third decimal point, and his sense of how policy debates have played out over time. “Anytime that Mike talks,” says Danny Homan, the president of the Iowa chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, “he has an extreme grasp of what has transpired in this state in previous years.”

Danny Homan, president of AFSCME's Iowa council, says Gronstal "has an extreme grasp of what has transpired in this state in previous years."

Democrats had full control of the legislature and governorship for a couple of years prior to 2010, and Gronstal had a good time, working on smoking bans, collective bargaining and LGBT protections. But for most of his lengthy tenure he has had to reckon with Branstad, a popular Republican figure who last month became the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history. The two have managed to consummate some big deals along the way. In 2013, Iowa agreed to an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, something that seemed surprising given a Republican governor and GOP-controlled House. Gronstal figured he could get the Republicans to go along with the expansion if he gave them something else they really wanted: a reduction of property tax rates, which had been a nagging issue for 35 years. It took a while -- the GOP backed away from a deal in 2012, in the vain hope that they might win back the majority that year -- but in the end both sides achieved something important to them.

If Gronstal sees that his Republican interlocutors are stuck, he’ll offer suggestions for specific proposals they can take back to sell to their own caucus. If a Republican wants something that’s meaningful to him and doesn’t disturb Democratic principles, Gronstal is fine with letting an opponent take the win. “You’ve got to understand what it is they need,” Gronstal says. “You back people into a corner and they’ve got no place to go, and they’ll fight. Show them a way out and they might be helpful to you.”
In other words, for all the fits he can give the GOP on certain issues, Gronstal is a throwback when it comes to legislative empathy. But handshake dealmaking may not fly in Des Moines in 2016. For one thing, revenues are already coming in about $125 million below expectations, making budget negotiations more difficult. For another, Gronstal will be working with a new Republican speaker. He had developed a real rapport with Paulsen. Although Gronstal worked on the Medicaid package with the new speaker, Linda Upmeyer, it remains to be seen how well they’ll connect, given her new role. “A new speaker will make the session slightly more difficult,” says Brent Siegrist, a former GOP House Speaker who hails from Gronstal’s hometown of Council Bluffs. “It takes time to build a level of trust.”

During last year’s budget negotiations, Gronstal painstakingly put together a deal that had something in it for everyone -- House Republicans, the governor and Gronstal’s own caucus. The numbers appeared to work for all sides, or so it seemed when Gronstal talked with the governor’s people. In the end, however, after legislators went home, Branstad vetoed millions for K-12 schools, universities and mental health facilities. Democrats were livid. Even some Republican legislators complained, although not enough to make up the two-thirds majority needed to call a new session and attempt an override. “He kind of canceled some of the goodwill I try and create,” Gronstal says. “I don’t know where that leads. It will certainly make the Senate Democrats less interested in helping the governor get some of his priorities, if none of ours get considered.”

In the wake of Branstad’s veto, House Republicans will struggle this year to convince Gronstal that if he comes to terms with them, they can get the governor to go along. “He felt he was sitting down with people of good faith,” says Matt McCoy, the Senate’s assistant Democratic leader. “I suspect he’ll be looking into the whites of Terry Branstad’s eyes, and he’ll be pushing harder to make sure the governor’s on board before he pronounces a deal done.”

As much as they express admiration for Gronstal’s work ethic and intelligence, Republicans can’t help resenting his stature as the single biggest obstacle blocking them from enacting the agenda they’d prefer. After two decades having to cope with him, they want the additional seats to get him out of there. “I have a lot of respect for Mike -- I really like him,” says Zaun, the GOP state senator. But then, in the next breath, he adds, “God, he really makes me mad sometimes.”

GOP state Sen. Brad Zaun: "I have a lot of respect for Mike -- I really like him." But, he adds, "God, he really makes me mad sometimes."

Iowa’s Republican governor knows his life would be a lot easier if his party just had two more votes in the Senate. Branstad is hopeful that it will happen this fall. Half a dozen Senate Democrats who are up for re-election in November represent districts with a Republican edge in voter registration. In Iowa as elsewhere, Democrats are running out of favorable territory. A couple of decades ago, half the party’s senators were from rural areas. Now there are only two Senate Democrats left from the mostly sparsely populated counties west of Interstate 35. Gronstal is one of them.

Republicans have had high early season hopes more than once in recent years. But Gronstal and his majority have remained standing. It hasn’t seemed to matter if one of his members bowed out due to serious health problems or to a gubernatorial appointment to a state job. Somehow Gronstal has kept his majority intact. Few neutral observers are willing to predict at this early stage that he will lose it in 2016.

Gronstal, who can only dream of winning a big majority in his own district, is up for re-election himself this year. Republicans will target him once again, but they may not have much luck. The local business community has discovered the virtues of having a top leader representing the area. One prime example is the way Gronstal helped tweak the state’s rules on economic incentives to help lure Google to Council Bluffs. The giant tech company has invested $2.5 billion in a data center facility and sponsors free Wi-Fi downtown. “They’ll come after him again and he’ll be tough to beat,” says Siegrist, who lives about a mile from Gronstal. “There’s a lot of respect for him around town.”

Former GOP House Speaker and Council Bluffs neighbor Brent Siegrist: "There's a lot of respect for him around town."

Between elections, Gronstal is able to keep his narrow majority together because other Democrats trust he’ll lead them where they need to go. He doesn’t twist arms. He tries to appeal to senators’ sense that they’re part of something larger than themselves. They might want to vote with the Republicans on a given issue, but he routinely manages to convince them that it would be a bad move for the party as a whole, and for their own political values.

Gronstal likes to invoke Joshua Chamberlain, the Civil War general who held the line at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. Chamberlain convinced more than 100 deserters to take up arms again because they had the rare chance to fight a war rooted not in power or land, but the principle that all men are created equal. During the long stretch of more mundane days that make up the legislative calendar, Gronstal tries to remind his colleagues that they each entered politics for values they believed in. Whatever the task is at hand, he presents it as one step in the long process of promoting those values.

“I’ve never threatened anybody,” Gronstal says. “If you can’t really persuade them, maybe you ought to rethink what you’re doing.”